One Particularly Terrifying Night

The Fear of Aerial Bombing

During the 1930’s and the first months of the war, it was feared that ‘the bomber would always get through’ and that high explosives would kill thousands and break the morale of the survivors. But once bombing began, improvements in air defences, particularly in fighter aircraft and radar, meant that many were shot down.

To avoid unsustainable losses, bomber aircraft were forced to operate at night. Targets were harder to find in darkness so Britain used the blackout as one of its defences against air raids.

Bombing was most destructive when a combination of high explosives (HE) and incendiaries (IB) were used. The explosives created piles of timber and flammable materials for the incendiaries to ignite, and delayed action bombs hindered the emergency services.

Thousands of one-kilogram incendiary explosive nose ‘firebombs’ (IBEN) were dropped. If they were found quickly, they could be extinguished. But when they started fires, they destroyed more buildings than high explosive bombs. The Verwood Council School (Senior Mixed) log book entry for 24 April 1944 records:

‘This morning at 2am (D.S.T.) the village was heavily bombed by several German planes (High Explosive & Incendiaries). One boy aged 14, Max Barrett, was killed. Houses were destroyed and damaged, people rendered destitute and homeless.’

World War Two January 1943 to May 1944

In mid-January 1943 Churchill, Roosevelt and their Combined Chiefs of Staff assembled at a hotel in Casablanca for one of a series of conferences whose conclusions governed the Allies’ grand strategy in the Second World War. The leaders settled two policies whose execution came to characterise the latter war years in Britain.

One was the combined bomber offensive against Germany’s military, industrial and economic system, and the morale of the people. And, the other, the commitment to planning for Overlord, as the invasion of occupied Europe in June 1944 was eventually known.

The ‘Baby Blitz’ January 1944 to May 1944

As 1943 progressed the terrible pounding that the RAF was inflicting on Germany’s cities had reached intolerable levels and although it had been planned to retaliate against Britain by bombarding the south of England with V1 flying bombs, as a result of technical development problems, this course of action had to be postponed.

Consequently, in November 1943, it was announced that a new series of retaliatory attacks on Britain were to be undertaken by conventional bombers. The code name was to be Operation Steinbock, but in Britain was known as the ‘Baby Blitz’, which was to take the form of concentrated attacks on industrial centres and ports, the principle target to start with, being London.

In December 1943 the bomber force facing Britain was reinforced and brought up to a strength of some 550 aircraft. The offensive, which had been planned to open during the full moon period in December 1943 was, however, delayed until mid-January 1944, when operations began with an attack on London and with the capital continuing to be the target throughout February. These missions, however, produced most unsatisfactory results.

Unlike the ‘Night Blitz’ of 1940-1941 the night defences now had the upper hand. Large numbers of radar controlled anti-aircraft guns, ‘Z’ rocket batteries and searchlights, together with a well-equipped night fighter force directed by a most efficient ground-controlled interception radar system, took a heavy toll of the attackers, with 130 aircraft being lost during January and February. March saw a further four attacks on London, as well as unsuccessful raids on Hull and followed towards the end of the month by the first directed against Bristol since 1942. By this time only 295 bombers were available for operations over Britain.

London sites were again in action during April 1944 with the capital’s last raid of the Baby Blitz, which was by now reaching its end, on the night of 18/19 April.

The closing raids fell on Hull and Bristol during the nights of 20/21 April and 23/24 April.

Air Raid at Bristol 24 April 1944

The harbour installations at Bristol were again the target on the night of 23/24 April, while in parallel an attack against night fighter airfields in the Bristol area was also to be carried out. A total of 115 aircraft were dispatched, of which 95 reported over the City, claiming to have dropped some 60 tonnes of HE’s and 80 tonnes of IB’s on target. Once again, however, not one bomb actually fell on Bristol. As on the previous raid the Germans completely failed to locate their target, the nearest bombs to Bristol having landed some 20 miles east of Bath in the village of Batheaston at 02.05 hrs.

Many other bombs and incendiary devices were dropped in rural areas in Somerset, Wiltshire, Hampshire and along the coast in Dorset, where British radar reported that as the German wave approached the coast, 35 of the German raiders dropped their bombs over or next to Swanage, Poole or Bournemouth.

Air Raid at Bournemouth 24 April 1944

The 51st and last air raid in which bombs were dropped onto premises and land within the County Borough of Bournemouth, during the Second World War occurred in the early hours of 24 April at 02.15 hrs. It was described as a ‘very noisy raid’. Aircraft, estimated at thirty, were heard to zoom and dive, the anti-aircraft guns putting up a massive barrage and brilliant searchlights swept the sky.

Phosphorus and incendiary bombs were dropped in six areas of the town but there was only minor damage. Civil Defence records show that 156 premises were damaged, all of which were capable of repair. There was also damage to a water main and the Roxy Cinema was badly damaged by fire.

A Fire Guard was killed. Another casualty died later in hospital. A further five casualties were seriously injured and another two slightly injured.

Air Raid at Verwood 24 April 1944

The Wimborne & Cranborne Rural District Council report on the air raid records that the raid affected three inhabited areas and the heathland and forestry behind the village. Firstly, Lake Road, where the damage was mainly caused by blast. Of the three large craters one appears to have been made by an HE bomb and two others by HE’s together with complete incendiary containers, which had not opened.

There was a casualty at Woodside, Lake Road, where a lady suffered from a bomb splinter wound in the hip. The wound was dressed and the casualty was taken to hospital. In this area three houses were badly damaged and six others slightly. Secondly, Ringwood Road and Hillside Road in the centre of the Village, where a large number of mixed incendiaries fell. In one house, in Hillside Road, an IBEN penetrated the roof and struck a boy inflicting a fatal wound. It is believed that this wound was caused by the explosive nose while the incendiary part of the bomb caused a small fire. In this area four houses were badly damaged, eleven slightly damaged and one burnt out.

And thirdly, Burrows Lane and district and the neighbourhood of Edmondsham Road, where there were eight large HE craters besides several small craters (one with an IB container). Between Station Road and Edmondsham Road were two small craters, believed to have been caused by Phosphorus bombs. In this area four houses were badly damaged by blast and slight damage was done to four others.

The raid also affected the area of heathland and forestry behind the Village towards Telegraph Hill, where many unexploded IB’s were found, also a large part of an empty container. Many forest fires were started. In total, the number of houses badly damaged in the village was 11; slightly damaged 21 and burnt out 1.The Church of England First School Verwood log book entry for 24 April 1944 records:
‘The attendance this morning was very low (62.8%) owing to an air raid during the night. Dinners from the school canteen were supplied to two families whose houses had been badly damaged’.

Post War Memories of the Verwood Air Raid

Home Security Daily Intelligence Reports, relating to civil defence and prepared twice a day for the Home Security War Room, primarily recounting the times, locations, and impacts of individual enemy attacks on the United Kingdom, mention Verwood only twice during the Second World War.

Firstly, on 3 July 1940 when, as part of a wider Dorset bomb damage report, ‘some bombs (school log books record 20 bombs) were dropped at Verwood, 6 miles NE of Wimborne’ and secondly on 24 April 1944 when as a single record, ‘Verwood 0214 HE and IB’s. House Damaged. Casualty 1 killed’.

Arguably both of these entries are significant events in themselves but there is no mention of whether Verwood was the main target, secondary target or even the unintended target of these air raids. Individual post war ‘memories’ of the Verwood Air Raid on 24 April 1944 suggest that the Petrol, Oil & Lubricants (POL) depot at West Moors was the intended target.

In a contribution to Viewpoint magazine in October 1983, Mike Guy remembers his mother, who lived on the corner of Burnbake and Newtown Road, telling him that the Verwood sandpits were camouflaged during the war to give the enemy the impression that that was where the fuel depot was situated and not West Moors. In a letter to Viewpoint magazine in February 1996, regarding the ‘Memories of a Village at War’ collected by the Evening Women’s Institute, Aubrey Barrow wrote that this brought back some wartime memories.

‘When the war was declared I joined the ARP. I was deputy Head Warden, with Mr Davies of Hillside Road as Head Warden. My area was Moorlands Road, Coopers Lane, Burrows Lane, etc. One evening there was a big drop of incendiaries on the Common at the top of Stephens Lane which set fire to gorse, heather and fir trees, which when burning, give off very black smoke. Listening in as we sometimes did, to hear Lord Haw Haw on the radio, he mentioned that there had been a successful raid on the Depot at West Moors the night before.’

In December 2003, Myra Eileen, who was 16 years old and living in Verwood when the war started, contributed to the BBC’s WW2 Peoples War Archives.

‘One scary time was when bombs dropped in Verwood and the gorse/heather all around Stephens Castle was alight. After normal working hours I was an Air Raid Warden Messenger and had to deliver messages whenever asked. On one occasion I had to cycle (with no lights) in the pitch black to fetch a doctor to attend a child involved in a fatal bombing.’

In 2007, Eileen Smith recalled another time.

‘When bombs were dropped in Verwood, the Germans announced on the radio that they had dropped bombs on the oil wells, but the closest oil supplies were then at West Moors Army Camp. The area known as Stephens Castle, which is all heather land, caught alight.
It was very sad that a bungalow or two in Hillside Road were hit and one young lad killed. One large bomb dropped on Burrows Lane, which didn’t explode. It was very frightening.’

In September 2004, Peter Barnard, who was living in West Moors during the war, contributed to the BBC’s WW2 People’s Archives.

‘Close to the village was an army base, at that time run by the American Army, of about three miles long and two wide, with an Admin. area. The base was surrounded on two sides by heavy conifer Forestry Commission plantations. This whole area was one huge diesel fuel dump, and, if the Germans had found it, half the New Forest would have gone up.

Two 52 wagon trains and 7 convoys of fifty 10-ton lorries left; brim full of diesel left every day. On one occasion, a returning convoy of empty lorries ground to a halt in the village. At the front, some soldiers had stopped and were entertaining my sister and giving her sweets! Our stay in West Moors was most peaceful.’

In December 2005, Dora Wicksteed, who was living in West Moors during the war, contributed to the BBC’s WW2 Peoples War Archives.

‘Although West Moors was never actually bombed, we had German and British planes flying over all the time at night, on the way to both Southampton and Portsmouth.’

US Army Quartermaster Gas Depot Q-328, West Moors

The MOD Ammunition Depot at West Moors was occupied by the US Army 3877th as a Petroleum, Oils & Lubricants Depot in support of the D-Day Normandy landings. At its peak, the depot held 75,000 tons of petroleum in five-gallon jerricans, with other lubricants and diesel stored in 55-gallon drums. By April 1944 a series of camouflage and decoy sites had been set up in ‘countryside areas’ to confuse bombers trying to identify targets such as the West Moors POL depot in night-time, blackout conditions.

In his book ‘Fields of Deception’, Colin Dobinson provides listings of the locations of decoy sites throughout the United Kingdom. Altogether, 797 separate sites are listed but Stephen’s Castle, Verwood is not one of them. There can be little doubt that the listing is complete, or nearly so, but there are some potential complications with the list, for instance the occasional shifting of a decoy on the ground to a better position.

The majority of the ‘sandpits’ at Stephen’s Castle had been requisitioned by the Army. The 20th Anti-Tank Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, Royal Artillery had used the area for training and the first experimental Bailey bridges were tried and tested across the quarry lakes. A decoy fire site, comprising containers filled with creosote, lit in response to an air attack to mimic the effect of incendiary bombs was located at Canford Magna. Operated by the Army, the site may have been the source of materials for the camouflage at Stephen’s Castle.

Royal Observer Corps (ROC) Post, Stephen’s Castle, Verwood

In addition to camouflage at Stephen’s Castle attracting the attention of enemy aircrew, there are two other night time air raid defences located in Verwood that might have also attracted their attention.

The Stephen’s Castle area was used for observation with a Searchlight Battery encamped behind a cob cottage on Moorlands Road and a Royal Observer Corps dug-out, one of the 21 ROC posts in Dorset, at the highest point of Boveridge Heath. Searchlights were used extensively in defence against night time bomber raids, indicating targets to anti-aircraft guns and night fighters.

Whilst radar stations were able to provide early warning of enemy aircraft approaching the British coast, once they had crossed the coastline the ROC provided a means of tracking them through their network of strategically placed observation posts. Observers were always some distance away from the searchlight in order to see illuminated aircraft better as the beam was so bright. This distance was also for safety, as a searchlight pointed into a sky full of enemy aircraft also made a great target.

RAF Decoy Airfield Q160b, Lower Common, Three Legged Cross

Originally set out as a decoy runway to divert enemy bombers from the mainly day time fighter airfield at RAF Ibsley, the ‘parent’ station in April 1944 for the night time ‘Q’ Site at Lower Common was RAF Hurn.

Although planned as a grass airfield fighter satellite to RAF Ibsley, RAF Hurn was built for bomber and transport use. However, along with other airfields in the area, Hurn was required for support of the cross-channel invasion. Transport Command units were moved out in February and March 1944 so that tactical fighter units could be moved in.

The newcomers were Hawker Typhoons and in the ensuing weeks RAF Hurn became one of the major ground attack aircraft bases in Southern England, often hosting six operational squadrons. Additionally, two De Havilland Mosquito equipped night fighter squadrons were also present for much of this period. Having relocated from RAF Valley on Anglesey to RAF Hurn, 125 Squadron undertook night fighter operations from March to July 1944.

Operations Record Book RAF Hurn 24 April 1944

‘Raid on SW England in the direction of Bristol by approximately 40 enemy aircraft, commencing about 0100 hours. Eight Mosquitos of 125 Squadron airborne.’ Five of them had combats between 0145 hrs and 0220 hrs, with three enemy aircraft destroyed and two damaged (one subsequently crashed). Landed at RAF Ford, West Sussex at 0350 hrs.’

Pilot combat reports record that contacts were obtained at 15,000 to 20,000 ft with the speed of enemy aircraft varying from 140 to 260 mph. Places of combat included Portland, Brixham, Warminster and Lyndhurst under the direction of ground interception controllers at Exminster and Sopley.

In January 2006, Peter Hollingworth who was a dispatch rider in the Royal Corps of Signals, based at RAF Hurn, contributed to the BBC’s WW2 People’s Archives.

Peter’s diary entry for 23 April 1944 recounts: ‘Bob & I did a bit of soldering this morning to a MT funnel. Afterwards we went to Sopley and ran out of petrol and had to push the bike back. At night we walked to Bournemouth and back, very tired and footsore. Mosquitos on our airfield destroyed two Jerry raiders. Good show.’

Decoy Airfield Bomb Damage Report 24 April 1944

A letter to the Officer Commanding, RAF Station Hurn, regarding Q site bomb damage for the night of 24 Apr 1944, requested that ‘in the event of enemy action not only on your Station but also within a three quarter mile radius of your Q site, you will return a Bomb Damage Report, even when actual damage is not sustained by the Q site equipment.’

Lake Road, Verwood which was bombed sometime just after 0200 hours on 24 Apr 1944, is within a three-quarter mile radius of the Q Site on Lower Common.

The letter, dated 5 May 1944, chasing up details of bomb damage on 24 April 1944 is evidence of the site’s role in diverting night time bombers away from the airfield at RAF Hurn.

Once the Mosquitos of 125 Squadron were in the air, the airfield lights at Hurn would have been switched off and the night crew in the Decoy Bunker would have been instructed to light up.On the approach of enemy aircraft, about three miles away, the decoy airfield lights at Lower Common would have been switched off in stages to ‘convince’ enemy pilots that the decoy was the actual RAF station.
Q sites were effective decoys. A USAAF aerial photograph over Verwood on 1 April 1944 clearly shows previous bomb damage at the Q site.

The only civilian killed in Verwood during WW2

A researcher from the University of York used daily wartime Home Security Intelligence Reports held in the National Archives to compile the Bombing Britain Database of some 32,000 air raids.

The map includes information on the number of people killed or injured in each raid. It offers an insight into the extent and the scale of the Second World War and visualises how bombing affected the entire country, not just London and the South East.

Approximately 74,175 tons of bombs were dropped by Germany in air raids over Britain and the estimated number of civilians killed was 60,595 with around 86,180 seriously injured.

Closer to Verwood, there were 51 air raids on Bournemouth, where over 2,270 bombs and incendiaries (nearly 50 tons) were dropped. 221 people were killed with 514 injured and some 13,745 properties were damaged, 246 of which were destroyed or beyond repair.

Also, the Dorset Bomb Map at the Keep Military Museum, Dorchester shows the number of bombs dropped in Three Legged Cross was 17 HE’s (3 were unexploded) and for bombs dropped in Verwood was 33 HE’s (2 were unexploded) and 204 IB’s, about 2.5 tonnes in total.

On the night of 23/24 April 1944 Bristol was again the main target for bombing. All along the South Coast in the lead up to D-Day, there were other key targets for air raids, such as RAF Hurn and the West Moors POL Depot.

So, everything that could be done to lure enemy bombers to country areas such as Verwood and Three Legged Cross, where bombs that exploded without damage to cities, towns, ports, harbours, industrial and military targets, saved the lives of many more civilians and service personnel alike.

Although saying that, we should not overlook those civilians who were killed or injured and whose property was damaged or destroyed locally and who were possibly quite unaware of why enemy aircraft were dropping bombs in country areas. How could they know at the time the bigger picture?

Verwood was of course not unique, as many civilians were killed or injured during the Second World War and hopefully none of these men, women and children will be forgotten, regardless of their nationality.

‘Lest we forget’ … the Verwood Council School (Senior Mixed) log book entry for the 27 April 1944 notes:

‘Max Barrett was buried today at 2pm with Girl Guides, Boy Scouts and the children who wished to attend taken to the funeral by the Teachers.’


125 Squadron: Records of Events 1944, The National Archives. Bournemouth at War, M. A. Edgington, Free Distribution Online PDF, 2013. Bournemouth The Air Raids, Moordown Local History Society, 2017. Bristol at War, John Penny, The Historical Association, Bristol Branch, 2002. Dorset: The Royal Air Force, Colin Pomeroy, The Dovecote Press, 2011. England Under Attack, The Fear of Aerial Bombing, Historic England, Website. Fields of Deception, Colin Dobinson, Methuen, 2013. Frontline Dorset, A County at War 1939/45, George Forty, Dorset Books, 1994. Q Sites: Return of the Bomb Damage Report, 5 May 1944, The National Archives. Luftwaffe Over Bristol, John Penny, The Historical Association, Bristol Branch, 2001. Operation Steinbock, Operations 5-26 Apr 1944, Wikipedia. Operations Record Book, RAF Station, Hurn, The National Archives. Pilots Personal Combat Reports, The National Archives. Post War Memories, Viewpoint Magazine, Mags4Dorset, Ferndown. Air Raid at Verwood, Monday 24 April 1944, Wimborne and Cranborne RDC. The Dorset Bomb Map, Keep Military Museum, Dorchester. The Railway Goes to War, West Moors Miscellany, Martin Rowley, Webmaster. USAAF Aerial Photograph, 4 Jan 1944,Search Room, Swindon, Historic England. Verwood, A Village at War 1939/45, Verwood Evening Women’s Institute, 2014. Verwood C of E & Council Schools, Log Book Entries, 18-24 Apr 1944. Verwood Village to Town, Jill Coulthard, J&JC Publications, 2007. Wartime Police Control Room Log 1944/45, Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. WW2 People’s War Archive, Written by the Public, Gathered by the BBC, 2003-2006.

Researched by Kevin Fyles
March-August 2020